August 24, 2021
By Evan Lepler
This Saturday night, we’ve got Dallas at San Diego at 9:00 PM/ET. The stakes are simple: Winner to Championship Weekend, and the loser’s season is over.
Similar story one day later on Sunday with Minnesota at Chicago at 6:00 PM/ET for the Central Division crown, and another coveted berth at Championship Weekend 10.
After a truly memorable 2021 regular season, the playoffs have arrived, and both these matchups are absolutely jam packed with fascinating storylines.
Out West, the Roughnecks and Growlers split two regular season meetings, with San Diego winning by one in late June and Dallas responding with a four-goal victory in late July. Of course, the first-ever meeting between these two franchises occurred in the 2019 AUDL semifinals, with the Roughnecks prevailing 23-18 in a game that genuinely was much closer than the final score indicated. Both squads sport winning streaks heading into the West Division championship game—Dallas has won four straight, while San Diego has won five in a row—but that only matters as pregame context. These are two enormously talented teams that both frankly underperformed their true abilities throughout the regular season. If either can truly generate their best game of the season on Saturday, they would likely book their flights—or private jet—to DC.
Meanwhile, the Wind Chill-Union matchup may not seem as juicy because neither of these teams have ever won a playoff game before. But that history only adds more urgency to this opportunity for both of these franchises. Chicago won the last meeting on a windy July Saturday in St. Paul. But 13 days before that, Minnesota got the win when they traveled to the Windy City, so the Chill should absolutely enter Sunday’s do-or-die drama with confidence. These are currently two of the league’s three 10-win teams, and who knows how they will handle the pressure of this type of moment. That mystery certainly encapsulates what will be a huge aspect of the story throughout this particular quarterfinal.
And while I know that there are two more regular season tilts in the Atlantic Division and the Canadian competition rages on, it feels right to take a pause and recognize that we have made it to playoff ultimate.
These games are the ones we will always remember, where legacies grow and losses linger longer. None of these four teams are just happy to be here. All expect to continue their seasons at Audi Field in Washington, D.C.
May the best teams win, and may the action live up to what we witnessed in a freaking unbelievable Week 12!
The Full Field Layout
Yea, so: Week 12 was nuts.
Dueling double overtime games in the Atlantic, two other one-goal games in other divisions, and nine of the 10 contests league-wide decided by four or fewer. It was also a wild week of statistical achievement, from the dominant New York duo finding an unstoppable rhythm to Atlanta’s Austin Taylor again compiling throwing numbers that look more like a video game than real life. Across the continent, in games that mattered and others that were inconsequential, the intensity, passion, and all-round level of play seemed to rise up a level, as a sense of desperation resonated throughout the last full regular season weekend.
Of course, in DC and Pittsburgh, those results were mighty impactful in the still-unfolding Atlantic Division hierarchy. The Raleigh/DC game, transpiring simultaneously with the Atlanta-Pittsburgh clash, both included more than their fair share of highlights, momentum swings, and unforgettable sequences, with each contest culminating in double OT.
If the Breeze had played better offense early in each of their halves, overtime probably would not have been necessary. DC’s dynamic and reliable quick disc movement went awry early in the first and third quarters on Saturday, as Raleigh opened the first half with back-to-back breaks and then began the second half with three consecutive breaks. Both times, however, the Breeze’s D-line created pressure to bring their team back.
“The slow starts for our O-line in each half were definitely concerning,” said DC Head Coach Darryl Stanley. “Because outside of those two rocky starts, the O-line played fantastically well.”
The Breeze closed the first half on a 3-0 burst to lead 11-10 at the break, only for Raleigh to rampage on their own 3-0 spurt early in the third, which was immediately countered by another 3-0 surge from DC. Over the final 17 minutes of regulation, though, neither side ever led by more than one. The most memorable play from this super intense stretch was probably Rhys Bergeron’s ridiculous layout interception on the first point of the fourth—“athletically, by far the best play I’ve ever made in my ultimate career,” he said afterwards—but Raleigh still scored later that point to tie the game at 15-all.
Then, with the game tied 19-all and 1:52 remaining, the Flyers completed 27 straight passes to bleed all the time from the clock, but Sol Yanick’s blading flick bounced off Henry Fisher’s hand in the very back of the end zone as time expired.
“I think it was evident that by the end of the game, our offense was running out of gas,” said Raleigh’s Anders Juengst, who scored seven goals in the game.
Overtime beckoned, and just like the end of regulation, Raleigh had the disc in its control with the score tied and the clock winding down. But DC’s Luke Rehfuss, playing in just his fourth game of the season, left his feet for a heroic layout block with less than 10 seconds left to deny the Flyers potential game-winning drive again.
“If you watch the film, I wasn’t actually guarding Anders [Juengst] that point,” said Rehfuss. “I was on Allan Laviolette until about two throws before the block when my teammate and I made a switch. As we got on the line, Rowan [McDonnell] was yelling ‘this is it, it has to be you, get it done,’ and that just kind of rang in my ears throughout the duration of that point. From there, it was just selling out as hard as possible…trail technique, inside lane, bait the throw, hope it is a little bit too far inside, make a play. Just the stuff we practice.”
Rehfuss’ remarkable red-zone block on the Flyers’ top goal-scorer sent the festivities toward universe point, with DC receiving and needing to just convert once to officially lock up home-field in the first round of the playoffs. Calmly and conservatively, with far more precision than we witnessed at the outset of each half, the Breeze completed 27 short passes, none longer than 26 yards, with a timeout mixed in. The second-longest throw of the point was the sequence’s climactic toss, a 16-yard pass from Garrett Braun to Jeff Wodatch that landed in the very front of the end zone and launched a cathartic celebration for the Breeze and their fans.
“The feeling was pure bliss,” said Bergeron, sharing his recollections from the moment the game ended. “Securing a home playoff game means everything to us. Our fans are the best in the league and having them with us for the entire postseason is incredible.”
Indeed, with Championship Weekend long since planned for our nation’s capital, the Breeze earning one of the top two seeds in the Atlantic guarantees that they won’t have to travel at all during the playoffs. For a team that has never before advanced to the Final Four, DC is eager and ready to reach new heights, on the back of the late-game heroics that got them over the hump on Saturday night.
“Rhys’ block and Luke’s block will go down in DC Breeze history,” said Stanley. “Despite the entertainment value, I’m hoping that if we see the Flyers in the playoffs, that we can do a little more on both sides of the disc to not require such heroics.”
It does feel mighty likely that the Breeze and Flyers will collide again on Labor Day weekend for the right to compete at Championship Weekend. Regardless of what happens with this weekend’s New York-Boston game, a DC win in Tampa would clinch the Breeze’s top spot and lock in another date with Raleigh.
For the Flyers, there’s no way to deny that this was another excruciating heartbreaker, their fourth narrow loss of the year, all of which have been by one goal. Adding to the trauma, three of the four were in overtime, including two double overtime defeats.
Just one week after their thrilling comeback win over Atlanta threatened to change the narrative, they enter the postseason haunted by another game they probably should have won, but instead let slip away. They undoubtedly know that they can beat anyone, but their lack of killer instinct has repeatedly taken its toll.
“The whole season, we’ve played pretty crappy in stretches against DC, Atlanta, and New York, but managed to keep those games within one point,” said Juengst. “We know all it takes is to fix one or two mistakes to turn those four losses into Ws.”
Meanwhile, Raleigh would have still been the three-seed in the Atlantic if Pittsburgh had been able to close out Atlanta in any of its many opportunities. But the Hustle improbably escaped their double overtime drama with a victory over a Thunderbirds team that looked far more competitive than the typical one-win team.
“Saturday’s game was exciting from wire-to-wire,” said Pittsburgh Head Coach Pat Hammonds. “It showcased the best the AUDL has to offer: big name stars making big time plays, the scoreboard on a seesaw, highlights worthy of ESPN, and drama down the homestretch.”
Pittsburgh actually led 10-7 late in the first half, but the Hustle, looking to snap their own two-game mini losing streak, closed the second quarter strong to tie the game by halftime.
“It felt like we played extremely poorly in the first half, but were still tied, so we felt like that was a generally positive sign,” said Atlanta’s Matt Smith.
The Hustle won the third quarter to lead 18-16 heading into the fourth, but with less than a minute remaining in the game, Pittsburgh was back on top 23-21. Amazingly, though, Atlanta scored twice in the final 30 seconds. The Thunderbirds still had another glorious chance to score in the closing seconds of regulation and walk-off with the win, but Max Sheppard’s throw to a pair of open receivers stunningly missed them both.
“We screwed up our coverage and left the front corner wide open,” said Smith. “Max hits that throw 99 out of 100 times, so I guess we were just flat out lucky.”
Overtime was also wild, as the Hustle scored first—Austin Taylor’s 11th assist of the night—but then fell behind when Pittsburgh’s Myles Cooper elevated over the taller Player Pierce for an absolutely massive skying score. (Perhaps you saw it later on as the number three play on SportsCenter’s Top 10.) Cooper’s crazy grab put the T-Birds up 25-24, though Taylor’s 12th assist came just over a minute later, as he found JP Burns for the equalizer with 40 seconds left in overtime.
Like Raleigh, Pittsburgh had the disc with a chance to win as time was expiring again, but the Thunderbirds incomprehensibly and egregiously failed to launch a throw into the end zone, as some members of the team apparently thought they were up by one and only needed to run out the clock to earn the victory.
“We made two very bad decisions in those overtime moments,” said Sheppard. “Two critical errors that I think we’ll learn from in the future.”
After this astonishing sequence, the Thunderbirds were still receiving the disc in double OT with a chance to win, but blocks from Jakeem Polk and Tanner Robinson helped the Hustle survive the three-turn final point, as Taylor’s 13th and final assist of the night found Antoine Davis for the win, capping a truly wild result with Atlanta victorious, 26-25.
“A win is a win and we’re all feeling positive heading into the playoffs,” said Smith. “Atlantic playoffs are just one game, we have two weeks to prepare, and we anticipate having our full squad for the remainder of the year. We’ve beaten every team we could potentially play, so we know we can do it.”
While the Hustle are moving on and preparing for the postseason, the Thunderbirds endured another painful defeat, finishing their season 1-11. They certainly looked very much like Atlanta’s equal throughout their double overtime battle, but rather than closing the season with a marquee result, it just went down as their seventh straight loss.
“It doesn’t really feel over to me,” said Sheppard, who had eight assists, five goals, and 798 total yards against the Hustle on Saturday. “I feel like like I have another game next weekend. But wins and losses, that’s what matters at the end of the day. We took a lot of close losses and a lot of bad losses, but we did lots of learning this year…I definitely feel like after that last game a lot of people saw the potential of what we can do.”
Taylor finished with over 1,100 total yards for the Hustle, with 798 throwing yards and another 304 receiving, to go along with his 13 assists, the most for any player in an AUDL game this season. Pittsburgh’s CJ Colicchio also erupted for 10 goals, tying New York’s Ben Jagt for the most goals anyone has scored in a game this year.
“Ultimately, we were very fortunate on a couple of uncharacteristic mistakes from Pittsburgh to eke out the victory,” said Taylor, who’s currently leading the AUDL with 55 assists, though New York’s Ryan Osgar had 54 and one game remaining.
If DC beats Tampa this Sunday, the Hustle would face New York in the first round of the playoffs, a game that could still potentially be in Atlanta if the Empire lose their rescheduled game in Boston.
And as we pivot toward the playoffs, we can only hope that we might get one or two more double overtime games in the weeks ahead.
Seven On The Line
- Another wild contest this past weekend unfolded Saturday night in Los Angeles, where the Aviators fell behind 8-2 and trailed 12-6 at halftime before turning it around against the San Jose Spiders.
“At halftime I had everybody look into each other’s eyes, and we knew we could come back,” said LA Head Coach Jeff Landesman. “We came out of half with an amazing intensity and tied the game at 15.” Indeed, the Aviators scored the equalizer on the opening point of the fourth, but the Spiders immediately responded with two straight to lead 17-15. From there, however, the Aviators soared on another epic rally, outscoring the Spiders 5-1 to take a two-score lead with just over a minute remaining. Of course, there was still work to do. “The end was crazy, as they had the disc with 13 seconds to go, down one,” remembered Landesman. The Aviators had succumbed to the dropped pull, double-team strategy, throwing a scoober that landed incomplete, giving the Spiders an 80-yard mission in the final dozen seconds. Shane Earley caught Steven Chang’s blading half-field flick on the doorstep of the goal-line with four seconds left, but Earley rushed the throw, and the towering 6’7” Jake Baumer, out there to defend a potential Hail Mary, was in the right spot at the right moment to swat down the disc and preserve LA’s 21-20 victory. With the win, the Aviators finished 5-7, going 4-2 in their last six games after starting 1-5. “As for my thoughts about the season, it was an incredible experience,” added Landesman. “Very emotional. The 21-20 loss to Austin on the day my dad passed was really heartbreaking. The first loss to Austin where we had the game won was also really hard to bear. Beating San Diego in the second game was so exciting, and the entire trip to Seattle and San Jose was so rewarding, especially the win in Seattle where the team gave me the game disc for my dad. Saturday’s game was such a perfect culmination of all the emotions of the season. Frustrating and infuriating early on, then exciting and overwhelmin. For me, the bonds forged between all of the players during the season was what made the season so special to me…I can’t wait to coach the Aviators again in 2022.”
- One day earlier, the Spiders were even with the San Diego Growlers through the first 16 points. Tied 8-all early in the second quarter, however, the Growlers roared on a 6-1 run and led the rest of the way. “The highlight of that game was definitely our defense,” said San Diego’s Travis Dunn, who tallied four goals, four assists, and a game-high 569 yards in the Growlers’ 24-21 win.
“They played well enough for us to win by double digits, but our offense was sloppy. Hopefully we take that personally and clean things up heading into this weekend’s matchup. Dallas won’t let us get away with that level of execution.” To Dunn’s point, the San Diego D-line converted 10 of 11 break chances, their best percentage and highest total of the entire season. Steven Milardovich, Dom Leggio, and Michael Tran, all of whom have played O-line in their careers, were the three main cogs moving the disc for the Growlers’ D-line. On offense, Goose Helton finished the game with five turnovers, but also recorded four goals and three assists. Most notably, Helton’s three assists brought his career total to 358, tying former Indy AllyCat Keenan Plew for the most all-time in AUDL history. Helton can break the record this Saturday night, as the Growlers meet the Roughnecks for the all-important rubber match in their 2021 season series. “Its definitely a different feeling going into this matchup for a divisional playoff game [than it was facing them for the first time at Championship Weekend to years ago,]” said Dunn. “Having faced them twice already this year allows our team to be more prepared for what we are up against. I think we had a lot of guys with wide eyes when we played them in 2019. I think our overall level of confidence should be higher this time around.”
- Why do I still think the Empire have to be considered the favorites to go back-to-back? At full strength, their O-line will almost always have the three best players on the field. Ben Jagt, Ryan Osgar, and Jack Williams continued their late-season tear on Friday night against Boston, as the trio combined for 15 assists, 13 goals, 10 hockey assists, and over 1,800 yards of offense in New York’s 25-21 win over the Glory.
They also had six combined turnovers on Friday, but the rest of the Empire had just two, as New York finished the game with a season-low eight giveaways. Individually, Osgar dazzled with 10 assists, while Jagt erupted for nine goals, seven of which came after halftime as the Empire put Boston away in the first ever meeting between the two franchises. Cam Wariner, playing just his second game for the Glory, got a deep block on Jagt on the Empire’s second O-point of the game, but Boston generated just five other blocks the rest of the game, two of which were Orion Cable interceptions on Hail Mary’s at the end of quarters. Tanner Halkyard and Topher Davis each had eight scores (goals plus assists) in the game and finished +7, but after New York strung back-to-back breaks together midway through the third, the once tight game became a five-point spread, and the Glory, while trading offensive punches the rest of the way, never seriously threatened New York down the stretch. Boston managed two breaks in just five chances against the New York offense for the whole game, while the Empire when seven of eight on break chances. The two teams meet again this Sunday in Boston, where New York needs to win to earn a home playoff game.
- The Chicago Union left no doubt that they’d be hosting the Central Division title game, scoring the first four goals and bolting to a 10-3 lead in their regular season finale against Detroit, en route to a 29-19 triumph that put the Union at 10-2 on the season. Notably, it was not exactly Chicago’s household names that paved the way to the great start. Blocks by Max Carpenter, Will Frolich, Jeff Robinson, and Reid Martin got the disc from Detroit’s offense on the game’s first four points, while JJason Vallee and Dex Dremann, who combined for six goals while playing almost exclusively on defense, were instrumental in converting the opening breaks. Chicago’s O-line was broken once in each half, but the Union’s defense went 11-for-18 on break chances, recording 16 blocks, two shy of the Union’s season-high. Of course, Pawel Janas still did his thing, throwing for 524 yards and finishing with 709 total yards along with five assists. Detroit’s Andrew Sjogren scored six goals to claim the league lead with 53, but, as previously mentioned, Jagt is poised to possibly pass him in the Empire’s finale. While the Mechanix showed signs of competitive improvement in the second half of their season, they still finished winless for the third consecutive campaign, going 0-12 to extend their four-plus year losing streak to a staggering 50 straight setbacks. Fan attendance in Detroit ticked up several levels in 2021, but the Mechanix are going to have to wait until 2022 (at least) to officially beat the streak.
The Minnesota Wind Chill did not have a ton to play for on Sunday afternoon, except denying the Madison Radicals their 100th win as a franchise. Clearly, that was sufficient motivation. After Kevin Pettit-Scantling’s amazing back-of-the-end-zone layout score for a break on the game’s opening point, the Wind Chill scored 11 of the next 14 goals and led 15-7 at halftime. Even without scoring a single goal in the fourth quarter, Minnesota still won 19-15, improving to 10-2 and finishing the season with double digit victories for just the second time in franchise history (2017). Dylan DeClerck tallied three blocks in the Wind Chill’s finale, giving the speedy defender 22 for the season, one shy of the league lead in that category. Atlanta’s Brett Hulsmeyer and Austin’s Mick Walter each recorded 23 blocks to pace the AUDL in the 2021 regular season, although technically they could still be caught by Rhys Bergeron, Ben Jagt, or Ryan Drost this weekend. Bergeron, Jagt, and Drost all have 15 blocks presently, meaning that if they tied the AUDL’s single game record with eight blocks in their regular season finales, they could match Hulsmeyer and Walter.
Boston was determined to not get swept in Week 12, and the Glory succeeded, earning a 22-19 win in Philly. (Of course, the Phoenix covered +4, helping Lepler’s Locks go 3-0 for the third consecutive week! Someone hose down this fire! The heat is scalding!) Davis and Halkyard paced the Glory offense with very similar lines: four goals, four assists, 383 total yards for Davis, four goals, three assists, and 411 total yards for Halkyard. Ben Sadok churned for 465 yards, but surprisingly threw no assists, scoring three goals instead. Philly’s Sean Mott authored a shimmering stat line with seven assists, 637 yards, and completing all 35 of his throws, but the Phoenix were outscored 5-2 to start the third quarter, breaking an 11-all halftime tie, en route to Boston’s road win that avenged the Glory’s home loss to the Phoenix back in July.
Up in Canada, Montreal’s Sacha Poitte-Sokolsky scored 13 goals and finished the two-game weekend at +17, but the Royal saw their five-game winning streak get snapped on Sunday when they were edged by the Outlaws 25-24. This was one day after the Montreal improved to 3-0 against the Rush this season by prevailing in another tight, competitive shootout, 25-23. Christophe Tremblay-Joncas registered three more blocks on the Royal’s weekend and leads all Canadian competitors with 13 blocks in seven games, as the Royal sit at 5-2 with one regular season game left. By the way, who would have ever guessed that Montreal would go 2-2 against Ottawa but 3-0 against Toronto? The 1-4 Rush still could surpass the 3-3 Outlaws for the right to play the Royal in the Canada Cup final, but Toronto needs to beat Ottawa in both of their remaining matchups to keep their season going.
Overall, I’m not sure we could have a more compelling playoff landscape over the next three weeks. Personally, I’m cautiously optimistic that I’ll be able to be a part of it all.
After missing Saturday’s Raleigh-DC broadcast while feeling under the weather—thankfully, Charlie Eisenhood crushed it on the solo call—I was tested for Covid-19 on Sunday morning and got a negative result. I tested again this morning and am still awaiting that result, hopeful that another negative will set me up to fly to San Diego this Friday afternoon.
It’s certainly been a whirlwind and rewarding few months of travel, calling multiple games each weekend in different cities all around America. It was super tough to lie in my hotel room this past Saturday night rather than be in the press box that was just 20 minutes away, though it was certainly the right decision, considering my symptoms. Now, I’m just crossing my fingers that I’ll be able to get to the finish line, grateful to have these opportunities to narrate some of the biggest games in the history of the league.
As Saturday showcased, with or without me, the great games will continue, with twists and turns that we can barely imagine set to unfold over the next three weeks.
To put it simply: it’s the best time of year in the AUDL.
It’s playoff time.